When most of us think about the upsets that come during March Madness, we think about the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Those first four days are filled with absolute craziness and it’s why we love the tournament. But it’s important to remember that the upsets don’t stop after that. Once we get to the Sweet 16, things don’t always go as planned. Let’s take a look at some of the greatest and most unlikely upsets to occur during the Sweet 16 in the history of the NCAA Tournament.
no. 5 Indiana over no. 1 Duke, 2002
Nowadays, a 5-seed taking down a 1-seed in the Sweet 16 wouldn’t be considered a massive upset. But there were special circumstances surrounding this game that make Indiana winning a major surprise. For starters, the Blue Devils were the defending national champions and were arguably just as talented as the previous year. Jay Williams and Mike Dunleavy would go onto become the no. 2 and no. 3 NBA draft picks, respectively, the following season. Carlos Boozer, Dahntay Jones, and Chris Duhon were also on the team. Meanwhile, Mike Davis was just in his second season after taking over for the legendary Bobby Knight and Indiana had already lost 11 games heading into the NCAA Tournament.
This game also stands out as a huge upset because Duke dominated early. They jumped out to an early 13-point lead and looked poised to blowout Indiana. The Blue Devils still held a comfortable 15-point lead midway through the second half before the Hoosiers came storming back behind Jared Jeffries, who had 25 points and 15 rebounds. Indiana completed worked Duke on the boards and the Blue Devils were stunned to lose 74-73 while the Hoosiers made it all the way to the national championship game.
no. 4 Arizona over no. 1 Kansas, 1997
Seed-wise, this wasn’t a massive upset, but heading into the game, Kansas seemed like an obvious choice to win and possibly claim a national championship. The Jayhawks were loaded with the likes of Paul Pierce, Jacque Vaughn, Scott Pollard, and Raef LaFrentz. Heading into the NCAA Tournament, Kansas had just one loss and it came in double-overtime. In other words, they looked close to unbeatable. Meanwhile, Arizona barely managed to survive the first two rounds of the tournament against a no. 13 and no. 12 seeds, so there was little reason to be high on the Wildcats heading into the Sweet 16.
However, Arizona kicked things into high gear when the Sweet 16 started. Freshman Mike Bibby came alive with a team-high 21 points while Michael Dickerson and Miles Simon also stepped up for the Wildcats. Arizona held a comfortable lead for most of the game and was able to withstand a late rally by the Jayhawks to hang on for the 85-82 win. The Wildcats ended up going to the Final Four, where they beat North Carolina and Kentucky to claim a national championship, a somewhat shocking turnaround for a team that was 19-9 heading into the NCAA Tournament.
no. 12 Missouri over no. 8 UCLA, 2002
This game made NCAA Tournament history with Missouri becoming the first 12-seed to win a Sweet 16 game and advance to the Elite Eight. While beating an 8-seed doesn’t look that impressive on paper, the Bruins were ranked in the top-20 at the end of the regular season and were considered one of the most talented teams to ever receive an 8-seed. Behind All-American Jason Kapono and seniors Billy Knight, Matt Barnes, and Dan Gadzuric, the Bruins were once ranked as high as no. 3 in the polls during the season. UCLA was also fresh off an upset of top-seeded Cincinnati in the Round of 32, so they looked like a serious contender, especially with a 12-seed lined up for the Sweet 16.
However, Missouri came to play behind Clarence Gilbert and Kareem Rush. While UCLA led for most of the game, they seemed to take their foot off the gas in the second half, allowing Gilbert and Rush to lead a late comeback. The Tigers also clamped down defensively, holding Kapono to just seven points. In the end, Missouri won 82-73 to reach the Elite Eight and exact a little bit of revenge on UCLA for Tyus Edney’s buzzer-beat in the Round of 32 in the 1995 NCAA Tournament.
no. 10 Davidson over no. 3 Wisconsin, 2008
If you didn’t know the name Stephen Curry before this game, you certainly knew it after Davidson upset Wisconsin. Curry and the Wildcats had also knocked off 7-seed Gonzaga and 2-seed Georgetown, so they had some momentum and were making a name for themselves. However, that Wisconsin team was loaded with upperclassmen and had won both the Big Ten regular-season and tournament championships. The Badgers also coasted to double-digit victories in the first two rounds of the tournament, so it was fair to wonder if tiny Davidson out of the SoCon could hang with the Big Ten champs.
With LeBron James sitting behind the Davidson bench but a partisan-Wisconsin crowd in Detroit, Curry dominated the game, particularly in the second half after the game was tied 36 points each at the break. Curry finished with 33 points, four assists, and four steals with the Wildcats running away with the game late to win 73-56 before coming up two points short against eventual national champion Kansas in the Elite Eight.
no. 11 LSU over no. 2 Georgia Tech, 1986
Even by today’s standards, an 11-seed knocking off a 2-seed in the Sweet 16 would be considered a big deal. But in 1986, it was almost unheard of for an 11-seed to make a run like this. It’s also worth noting that Georgia Tech was one of the nation’s elite teams that season behind head coach Bobby Cremins and several future NBA players, including Mark Price, Tom Hammonds, and John Salley. Meanwhile, LSU was just lucky to be in the tournament. The Tigers lost multiple players to injuries, academic issues, and team expulsions over the course of the season. At one point, the whole team was quarantined because a couple of players had chickenpox.
However, none of that mattered once the NCAA Tournament started. The Tigers survived a double-overtime game with Purdue in the first round and then upset 3-seed Memphis State to reach the Sweet 16. LSU had the additional obstacle of playing Georgia Tech in Atlanta, a de facto home game for the Yellow Jackets. But Derrick Taylor and Don Redden came through, combining for 50 of LSU’s 70 points in the 70-64 win. The Tigers then beat 1-seed Kentucky to reach the Final Four. By doing so, LSU was the first 11-seed to reach the Final Four and the first to knock off the top three seeds from its region to reach the Final Four.